People LOVE to say, “Oh she is living with HIV.” Correction: HIV is living with me. If I were living with HIV, I would live my life by HIV’s terms — and I simply cannot do that. I am a Taurus, a bull, so I am stubborn. I am no different when it comes to my diagnosis. What do I mean when I say that HIV is living with me? HIV is like my roommate. We share an apartment, but I have the master suite. Basically, I have chosen to take control of my virus and live every day to the fullest.
I found out that I was HIV-positive in 2003. I was 19, and I was this all-American teen living this marvelous life when a sudden illness landed me in the hospital. Suddenly, the life that I’d envisioned for myself — one that included romance, health, and family — was plagued with uncertainty, loneliness, and stigma. For a long time, I pushed my dreams aside, believing that I couldn’t live a full life with HIV. But eventually I stopped buying the dreams the bigots were selling. I worked through my shame, and the strength I gained allowed me to create new dreams.
I think there’s power in sharing my story. I travel to high schools and colleges all over to talk with young people about HIV prevention. I want to empower young women who naively believe that Prince Charming will protect them and keep his word. Life isn’t a fairy tale. And no guy is worth putting yourself at risk. I want to empower women to not put themselves at risk. I’ve seen too many women with HIV raise children alone, struggle to pay bills, and face life’s challenges without the skills needed to compete. I share my story because I refuse to let my diagnosis be in vain! I refuse to live with HIV.
My struggle has taught me that I am the architect of my destiny. HIV shattered my dreams, but it also helped me rebuild them. Since my diagnosis, I have learned the importance of self-love and self-acceptance.
I proudly stand before you in an open, humble, and confident way. Well, sometimes humble. I use a combination of medicines to manage my HIV. Thanks to these, I have a T-cell count of about 1,300, which is higher than some HIV-negative people, and the virus is undetectable in my body. I think it is safe to say that HIV is living with me!
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Marvelyn Brown, Emmy Award-winning author, HIV educator, and National Women and Girl HIV/AIDS ambassador. This article originally appeared on the Office On Women’s Health blog.